Review: Lights Out

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Lights OutTed Koppel. New York: Broadway Books, 2016.

Summary: Explores the vulnerabilities of our power grid to attack, the state of our preparedness for such an attack, and what it would take as individuals to survive such an attack.

Imagine what you would do if the lights went out. Your electric appliances would not work. You could not charge laptops and smartphones. Suppose it was widespread enough to take out the pumps and equipment that pump drinking water and handle sewage. The pumps at gas stations won’t work so you are immobilized. If it is winter, you may have no heat. Suppose this lasts not for a few hours or even a few days. Suppose it lasts for weeks or months. Suppose the lights are out for half or all of the country. What would happen to public order? Would you survive?

Sounds like something out of apocalyptic fiction, right? Ted Koppel, celebrated host of Nightline for many years and veteran journalist went through this mental exercise and that sought reassurances that it couldn’t happen and discovered instead our disturbing vulnerability to just such an event. Through interviews with experts in the power industry, military, cyber-security, Homeland Security, and others, he discovered that such an event is not only possible, but that indeed there is a high probability that such an attack upon our power grid could be mounted.

The first part of the book explores the vulnerability of our power grid, particularly to cyber-attack. The danger is how inter-connected our grid is. You may remember how a wire hitting a tree limb near Akron took out much of the northeastern United States. Our own power company barely got us off that grid in time. Attacks on critical parts of the grid can cascade. It could be terrorists with AK-47s attacking key transformers. It could be a high altitude nuclear detonation emitting an electro-magnetic pulse. But more likely it could be a cyber attack. One of the problems is that our power grid interconnects thousands of electric companies who buy power from each other. Some, usually the bigger ones, have better cyber-security than others. None are hack proof. Probably all have at least been probed, and in some cases, already compromised. And most share control software from an era before cyber-warfare was a significant threat. And if hardware like transformers are destroyed, replacements are not always immediately available.

OK, so it is possible or even probable, but aren’t we prepared for that? Sure, agencies like FEMA do disaster planning, but Koppel found that the people he interviewed offered little reassurance that there are good plans for responding to this kind of disaster. Yet eventually, responses would be mounted, but many major cities would have to survive by themselves for the first weeks or months of a prolonged outage.

So that brings us to the third part of Koppel’s book, what would it take to survive such an event? This was probably the most sobering part of the book because it raised the question of how far one is prepared to go to survive. Yes, you can plan to be off the grid, have food and water supplies, but to what extent are you willing to defend yourself from those who are not so well prepared but may be willing to kill to get what you have. Consider the amount of guns in American society. Koppel interviews “preppers,” those who already live in wilderness areas relatively off the grid, and interestingly, Mormons, who have prepared in each of their “wards” to support one another in disaster. Most fascinating in discussions with this group, which has renounced violence and trusts to law enforcement, is that their guidelines for survival in disaster include the recommendation that one “might consider obtaining a gun” without specifying how it would be used–an approach Koppel describes as “constructive ambiguity.”

At the end of the day, Koppel thinks at very least that we need to think about how we would survive at least for two weeks and to have some kind of plan in place with provisions for non-perishable food, water (most critical), and other basic necessities, allowing time for coordinated disaster responses to begin. Drawing on the Mormons, he also points to the issue of social capital–do we belong to real networks of people who will help each other when the chips are down–religious organizations, community organizations, or even close knit neighborhoods?

What struck me in reading is that there are two kinds of preparedness that Koppel is addressing. One is defensive preparedness, ranging from cyber-security to disaster planning to stockpiling critical supplies. As important as that is, the more important preparation may be that of the social fabric of our country, which seems in tatters. Koppel speaks of wartime England and the mutual support people gave each other. It is sobering to ask whether that national character exists in our own highly divisive, factionalized nation and with our increasing isolation in an internet-mediated virtual reality. How long would order and mutual support last? Long enough?

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through Blogging for Books. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Faculty Factor

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The Faculty FactorMartin J. Finkelstein, Valerie Martin Conley, and Jack H. Schuster. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016.

Summary: A data-rich study of the profile, experience, and influence of university faculty in the turbulent and rapidly changing landscape of higher education institutions in the United States.

Every commentator on higher education will tell you that the higher education world is going through a season of dramatic change that puts pressures on faculty and administrators. Among these are economic pressures and the use of business models for academic planning, postponements of retirement of tenured faculty, technology changes affecting both content and delivery of education, a focus on STEM fields, and the increasing diversity of the general populace and the expectation of seeing this in the academic workforce.

This data rich study seeks to provide a quantitative basis for assessing changes in “the faculty factor”–their influence, the character of their work, their career paths including both entry and departure, and the demographic make up of the faculty. This book builds on an earlier work, The American Faculty: The Restructuring of Academic Work and Careers, by Schuster and Finkelstein and charts the impact of the Great Recession of 2008 on faculty.

The work is broken into five parts. The first is an overview of the history of faculty in America and some recent change dynamics and how these affect different contexts. The second focuses on career paths–entry, progress, and exit. The third looks at the nature of work and specialization, cultural changes, and compensation. Part four compares American faculty and their institutional influence with faculty around the world. Finally, part five sums up the changes that have taken place and recommendations for strengthening “the faculty factor.”

This is a massive and fine-grained analysis showing detailed experiences of faculty by types of institutions, gender and ethnicity, career and age stage, and academic discipline. It’s not possible to capture all the insights into change going on but several key findings are the following:

  • affiliation in terms of tenure or tenure track varies widely by type of institution, maintaining its greatest strength in the research context, and weakest at the associate degree level institutions. There is also wide variation by academic disciplines, with STEM faculty enjoying higher levels of tenure.
  • there are more diverse career pathways, and variation between men and women remains significant. As many have noted, there are many more remaining in adjunct or non-tenured contract positions.
  • functions of teaching, research, and service are becoming more highly specialized, whereas at one time they were all a part of any faculty person’s work life.
  • the faculty is more diverse, although this diversity is not always equally reflected in differing types of institutions, and in those holding tenure or tenure track positions.
  • one of the factors affecting career paths, shaped in part by the Recession as well as longevity and changes in employment law are the increasing number of aging tenured faculty who continue to work, and retire at later ages, often past 70.
  • faculty influence, especially beyond their own departments is greatly waning as increased managerialism by non-academic university leaders replaces faculty governance.

I would commend this for several groups of people. While it is a lengthy read, prospective graduate students contemplating academic careers would do well to understand current trends and how these may shape their career aspirations. Likewise, this would be worthwhile for graduate students considering their career path and what kind of institution they want to work in to weigh. Faculty, particularly those in their early careers can benefit from this analysis, especially if they care about university governance.

There is one final group for whom this is of value, and particularly they may find it helpful in distilling so much research into a single work, and that is university planners, boards of regents, and political leaders exercising oversight over research funding and higher education. What this study highlights for me, and should be considered by them, is that for many serving the educational mission of colleges and universities, these are increasingly unsustainable careers, and I would think, at some point, higher education may find itself critically short-handed, as people figure this out and pursue more remunerative careers.

The authors recognize that the “faculty factor” is the critical factor in American pre-eminence in higher education. Other countries are rapidly overtaking us and both governmental and institutional factors are weakening the influence of this key group. The question I’m left with after reading this book is, will we wake up in time and renew our efforts?

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via a pre-publication e-galley through Edelweiss. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Record Stores

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Photo (c) 2017, Robert C Trube

I saw this scene yesterday at our local Barnes & Noble and it brought back memories of the hours I spent as a teenager bent over bins of LPs at record stores around Youngstown. I find it amazing that vinyl is making a comeback–I think they were devoting more space to vinyl than to CD’s in this store. They said back in the late 1980’s that vinyl was dead. It has apparently experienced a resurrection. Actually for years, I’ve known people who prefer the sound of vinyl, including a number of young listeners. And I’ve picked up some great recordings in used record stores–yes, you can still sometimes find me over those record bins! It appears that CD’s are on the ropes as people either download or stream music they want to listen to digitally.

Perhaps the place to go for records at one time was Record Rendezvous in downtown Youngstown on W. Federal Street. This was the place where you could go and listen to music before you bought it, particularly on 45’s, and some LP’s. They advertised regularly in the Vindicator as I recall, with lists of the top 10 hits. As I understand it, they were part of a chain of Record Rendezvous stores in northeast Ohio. From a Vindicator obituary, I learned there was also a Record Rendezvous in Niles.

I have to admit, I didn’t shop there regularly personally. When I was downtown, I was usually at work at McKelvey’s, later Higbee’s, and they had a decent record department up on the fifth floor during the time I worked there, and I could use my employee discount, which often gave me the best price on new vinyl. It was one of my favorite places to go on break, other than Plaza Donuts in the old Parkade. In high school, my tastes were more to rock and roll–classic groups like The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Creedence Clearwater Revivial, and Jethro Tull. In college, I discovered jazz and artists like Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Dave Brubeck (still one of my favorites!). And because of a friend at Dana School of Music who exposed me to classical music, I began to buy some of the great classical works.

I always loved the album art on LP’s. The little booklets in jewel cases just weren’t the same. I think, for example, that my love for my recording of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony has just as much to do with the beautiful forest scene on the cover with a woman in white in the midst. Remember trying to figure out the significance of the cover of Abbey Road? Was Paul dead? Or the minimalist cover of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon–a black background, a thin ray of light passing through a prism creating a spectrum of color? There were the surrealist covers by Mati Klarwein on Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew and Santana’s Abraxas. Great music, great art. This never shows up on “best” lists but Cream’s Disraeli Gears cover strikes me as one of the best psychedelic pieces of art.

Camelot Music and National Record Mart eventually came on the scene at the malls, with much bigger selections than the department stores but whenever we were in K-Mart or Woolco, we’d check out the record section because they usually had the best prices. Camelot became the place to go for me to build my jazz and classical collections as well as pick up some of the latest hits. But I remember  that the YSU bookstore had some great sales, usually on “cutouts” but I found some unusual classical and jazz at some of these, including a great collection of Schubert Symphonies.

I’ve been trying to rack my brain as to whether there was ever a Peaches Records in the Youngstown area. It would have had to be after I left. There was a place called Oasis records for a while in the Boardman Plaza and I loved to go over there while my wife took her mom shopping on visits back home.

Stores just dedicated to records are fewer and farther between these days. Barnes & Noble stores have a growing selection of vinyl as well as other media. I found online three independent stores in the Youngstown area, Geo’s Music in downtown Youngstown, Underdog Records in Hubbard, and the Record Connection in Niles. I’ll have to put these on my Youngstown Bucket List because I still love perusing through the bins of vinyl looking for that special recording.

Did you enjoy hanging out at record shops growing up? Where did you go to get your music?

 

 

 

 

Review: The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher Education

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The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher EducationChristopher Gehrz, ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015.

Summary: The contributors to this volume consider the “usable past” in Pietist thought and practice that might serve in the “forming of whole and holy persons” in Christian colleges with a Pietist heritage.

Pietism often comes in for a bad rap in discussions of higher education from a Christian perspective. It is often viewed as anti-intellectual, more concerned with the affections of the heart than the life of the mind. The contributors to this volume, most with a connection to Bethel University, would propose both that this is a mere caricature of a truly robust Pietism, and that there are significant resources of theology and practice in historic pietism that may be drawn on as a “usable past” to form “whole and holy persons” from the students and faculty at Pietist institutions.

I found the contributions in the first two sections of this work to be the strongest in actually defining what this usable past might be and how it could be critical to the higher education enterprise. In Part One on teaching, scholarship, and community in a pietist university, Daniel Williams argues that the convertative and conventicle aspects of pietism provide basis for transformation in a community of learners. Katherine Nevins argues for the importance of the priesthood of all believers, the emphasis on love of God and neighbor, and the pietistic virtues of humility and openness to correction as vital in the university classroom. Jenell Paris proposes that the Reformed integrative paradigm, with its focus on intellect and worldview may be complemented by the Pietist focus on the love of learning and the value of the intrinsic worth of a discipline of study. Phyllis Alsdurf contrasts the educational visions of Carl F. H. Henry and Carl H. Lundquist, a former Bethel University president. Henry was the better know both for his publications and his vision of a Christian Harvard. Lundquist, while sharing many of Henry’s evangelical commitments and endeavors actually realized the leadership of a Christian institution, instilling a perspective that linked love of Christ and learning, of heart and mind, of university and church mission together. Roger Olson returns to the themes of conversion and community and their role in fostering a learning that is transformative rather than just informative, and values sincere questioning and critical thinking done communally.

Part Two then considers Pietism’s impulse of service to the world as part of our witness to Christ. Dale Durie applies the priesthood of all believers to the idea of a priesthood lived out in every field of inquiry in God’s temple, the creation, under God’s leadership, praying for and blessing others, being the church wherever we are, and acting in the world for the common good. Christian Collins Winn commends the Pietist virtues of openness, humility, love, and hope as vital to fostering a civil public discourse. Marion Larson and Sara Shady write of how these virtues have informed their efforts to educate students to relate to those of other faiths (see also From Bubble to Bridge from the same authors reviewed here).

Part Three includes two models of Pietist informed education, in the fields of science and science teaching, and in nursing. Part Four seemed the most “miscellaneous” of the four parts. It begins with an essay by Raymond VanArragon on how open-mindedness and a Pietist concern for truth are held in tension. The next turns to the question of whether a Pietist university can be coherently organized while emphasizing Christian experience. Following this is Kent Gerber’s discussion of the need to curate and preserve Pietist resources and archives to foster research into “the usable past.” Finally Samuel Zalenga writes of the challenge of preserving Pietism given the neo-liberal economic pressures impacting the life of all universities.

Christopher Gehrz concludes this collection with what he thinks Pietism can contribute in a season emphasizing innovation in the university world, and in so doing summarizes themes that have run through a number of these essays. Pietism emphasizes conversion, a transformation of the heart and not simply the informing of the mind, and Gehrz argues for the liberal arts when STEM has gained ascendancy as the “liberating” arts. He contends that the Christian university can function as a “little church within the church,” bringing reform to the whole. Finally, he sees the Pietist university as instrumental in serving to bring about a new world, as inward transformation is translated into outward service.

What strikes me in reading this work is that it reflects one side of a conversation between the Pietist and Puritan (Calvinist Reformed) streams of the church in American history. The collection underscored for me both a deep appreciation of the Puritan stream, and yet a recognition of the worth brought by the undervalued Pietist stream. Rather than opposing these to each other, it is exciting to dream of what could happen in bringing these two streams together into a mighty river bringing fresh life and transformed character as well as intellectual rigor into Christian higher education, which may in turn both serve and challenge the secular higher education establishment.

Review: Awakenings

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AwakeningsOliver Sacks. London: Picador, 1991.

Summary: Chronicles the experience of post-encephalitis patients existing as prisoners in their own bodies in a trance-like state, who, when treated with L-DOPA, experienced dramatic “awakenings” nearly always followed by debilitating side effects, often resulting with withdrawal of the drug, and a return to their former state.

From 1916 to 1927, there was an epidemic of encephalitis lethargica, or “sleeping sickness.” The sickness often resulted in a period of profound lethargy, sometimes ending in a return to normal or nearly normal life. A number of patients experienced symptoms of Parkinsonism, leading to increasing paralysis and necessitating institutionalization. Many lived as prisoners in their own bodies, limited in movement and speech.

Oliver Sacks, in this book chronicles his work with a group of such patients, some institutionalized for as long as forty years in Mount Carmel Hospital in New York. During the time that he was caring for them, a new drug, L-DOPA, began to be used with great effect on Parkinson’s patients, and since these patients symptoms were similar, Saks, and other attempted to use the drug with them with dramatic, and ultimately, troubling, effects.

After introductory chapters on Parkinsonism, sleeping sickness, Mount Carmel, and L-Dopa, he describes the patient history of twenty patients who he treated with this drug. It turns out they responded very differently than Parkinson’s patients. Nearly all of them experienced “awakenings” where they regained the ability to move and speak. One patient, Leonard L. described the experience as follows:

“I feel saved. . . I feel like a man in love. I have broken through the barriers which cut me off from love. . . . I have been hungry and yearning all my life, . . . and now I am full. Appeased. Satisfied. I want nothing more. . . . L-DOPA is a blessed drug, it has given me back the possibility of life. It has opened me out where I was clammed tight shut before. . . . If everyone felt as good as I do, nobody would think of quarrelling or wars. Nobody would think of domination or possession. They would simply enjoy themselves and each other. The would realize that Heaven was right here down on earth.”

Sadly, with few exceptions, these awakenings did not last but turned into wide awake nightmares. Coherent speech would become rushed faster and faster, and degenerate into repeating of words or phrases. “Tics” would appear and become debilitating. Movement would accelerate to the point that the person could harm themselves. Psychological changes occurred as well and a normal personality would generate into mania.

The histories describe the heart-wrenching efforts to bring these symptoms under control by reducing dosages. Sometimes things were so bad that they had to withdraw the drug, leading to a return to a trance-like or coma-like state. He also describes three stages he observed patients going through: awakening, tribulation (side effects is too mild to describe this stage) and accommodation. Some are able to resume L-DOPA, and some not. What is striking is how they come to terms with their dashed expectations and suffering. Leonard writes, “I am a living candle. I am consumed that you may learn. New things will be seen in the light of my suffering.”

Sacks also observes how significant the human connection is with his patients, and how they do significantly better when there is at least one person in their lives with whom they connect, whether someone on the ward, or a family member or friend. For one patient, the chance to cobble shoes again enhanced his physical well-being and checked his descent into profound Parkinsonism.

He concludes with some profound reflections on the nature of disease and the human personality. Sacks then includes series of fascinating appendices at the end of the book exploring the history of “sleeping sickness,” the past experiences of “miracle drugs,” and the electrical basis of awakenings. Two of the most fascinating were his studies of the different perceptions of space and time of his patients, and the application of chaos theory to understanding patient responses to L-DOPA, which did not follow any orderly progression.

The last appendix is an account of the various radio, stage, and screen adaptations of Awakenings. Most notable is his description of working with actors Robert De Niro and the late Robin Williams and director Penny Marshall on the film version of Awakenings. He pays a wonderful tribute to their craft in getting “inside” what it was like to be one of these patients and the portrayal of fifteen “awakenings” at once and the chaos, brilliantly choreographed by Marshall.

Sacks gives us a narrative that helps us understand the often heartbreaking process of medical research, where advances and setbacks often come together, and where, more than science, the bond between doctors and other caregivers and patients remains paramount, whether treatments effect cure or not. Through one rare condition, Saks gives us a lens into the human condition we all share.

 

Review: From Bubble to Bridge

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From Bubble to Bridge, Marion H. Larson and Sara L.H. Shady. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: Explores how to equip Christians for engagement in our religiously diverse multifaith environment, moving out of our Christian “bubbles” and building bridges of understanding without compromising the convictions of one’s own faith.

Many of us don’t have to go beyond our own neighborhood to realize how religiously diverse our world has become. When my son was young, it was not at all uncommon for him to be playing basketball in our driveway with a friend who was Jewish and another wearing a turban who was a Sikh. Meanwhile, we watched an Indian couple, likely from a Hindu background walk down the street and a Muslim family arrive home just up the street.

The authors of this book are professors at a Christian college, Bethel University, in Minnesota and they became aware that it was not enough for them to prepare their students to connect their faith with their particular field of academic preparation. In our multifaith world, they realized that it was crucial to equip their students to be able to engage well with those who believe differently. As reflected in their title, they wanted to use the experience of students in this Christian “bubble” to prepare them to build bridges of understanding with those of other faiths. They write in their Introduction,

“A common goal of education, from a Christian perspective, is to cultivate a mature intellect and faith, one that enables us to lead lives of meaningful service as we actively engage and seek to transform the world. Over the years much has been written by Christian academics about the integration of faith and learning, and this scholarship continues to discuss the importance of helping students learn to weave together the academic, social, and spiritual aspects of their lives. Many recent works on Christian higher education have considered what faith-learning integration might look like in the twenty-first century; however, little attention is given to preparing Christian students to navigate a religiously diverse world. Christians need to be more intentional about preparing to love their neighbors, even (perhaps especially) when those neighbors have different religious beliefs. For those on evangelical Christian college campuses, such preparation needs to include interfaith service and dialogue on and off campus as an important aspect of education and spiritual development.”

This book describes how they have gone about that work. It begins in the first two chapters with an apologetic for the civic and religious imperative addressing how we engage religious pluralism. Failure to do so may lead to prejudice or even violence. More than this, the religious call is to love our neighbor, and to practice what Amy Oden has called the four movements of hospitality: prepare, welcome and restore, dwell, and send.

They then deal in the next two chapters with barriers to multifaith engagement and the question of how one does this without hopelessly compromising one’s own faith. One barrier is the seeming “conflicted Christian identity” that is unsure that one can be simultaneously hospitable and yet true to one’s faith. There are also tensions between Christian “privilege” and our own perception of being an embattled minority. Sometimes we are just fearful. The authors invite us into a model, drawing on the thinking of Martin Buber and Miroslav Volf, that avoids either mere tolerance or complete acceptance, but strives for inclusion that pursues genuine dialogue and relationship without jettisoning our own beliefs.

Chapters five, six, and seven explore how, practically, students on the Christian college campus can be educated for this kind of engagement. Chapter five focuses on cultivating three virtues: humility, commitment and empathy. Chapter six explores how these can be developed on the Christian college campus and chapter seven provides a number of practical resources, exercises, and experiential learning opportunities that develop the skills needed. Then chapter eight provides practical steps that can be taken in going into another’s religious “home”–attending a feast or observing a religious service, engaging in service together, and learning from partners from another faith.

Each chapter ends with one or two stories of students engaged in various interfaith experiences, emphasizing both the increased understanding of other faiths, and the greater confidence in and appreciation for one’s own. Surprisingly, even though such dialogue is not “proselytizing,” many of the Christian students speak of how profound it was for them to speak honestly of their own beliefs as well as understanding those of others. The end of each chapter also provides questions and “Give it a try” ideas for groups working through the book.

This book struck me as a very helpful resource, whether for an educator in a Christian college, or a ministry leader working with a collegiate group in a public setting. It is striking, as Eboo Patel, a leader in interfaith work on university campuses has observed, that evangelical Christians have often been the most reluctant to engage in these efforts. Yet many students have been alienated by instances of religious prejudice, and long for an expression of their faith that doesn’t confine them to a bubble and wall them off from their religious neighbors. Instead, they want to build bridges of understanding and find ways across differences to pursue common goods. This book is a helpful guide.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

The Scandal of the Church in America: Part Two

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Claude Vignon, Lament of St. Peter CC BY-SA 3.0

Yesterday I made the contention that the scandal of the Church in America is that it is deeply divided within itself, that we have deeply rent the body of Christ, and that these divisions reflect the divisions in our country rather than the unity of people across our differences in Christ.

So what can and must be done?

I am not proposing that we all just try to gather in some kind of circle around a campfire, hold hands, and sing “Kumbaya.”

First of all, I believe we must awaken. I wonder whether most of us are all that disturbed that the Church in America is divided within itself and that we often include fellow believers in “the enemies” we are fighting and attacking (even when we’ve been told that our warfare is not to be against flesh and blood). I wonder if we are caught up so much with the urgency and the grievances of our particular tribe of Christians, and those with whom we have made common cause that we are woozy like boxers who have been punching each other too long.

Second, I believe we need to lament our sad state. We may not have a clue how we can mend the wounds between us. That tells us how desperate things are. It acknowledges that we need an intervention from on high. Lamenting takes us into a place where we realize our desperate need for God, and that to go on in the way we have is increasingly intolerable.

Third, as we begin to grasp our own contribution to the deep divisions that exist among believers, and the ways we have wronged in word, thought, and deed, in personal acts and unjust structures, we need to repent. Repenting is to call our own sins for what they are, to acknowledge them to God, and the wronged person as wrong, to come to terms with the real hurt and harm we have caused, and to acknowledge our intent, with God’s help to live differently and to determine what that difference will look like. Often we need to do this with the offended.

Repenting is hard, particularly when we think the other might have more to repent of than do we. Often the others think it the other way around. The question sometimes is simply, who will end the rounds of accusations and begin the process of repentance and restoration?

Fourth, we can begin to engage with our fellow believers across our differences and often at this point, what is most needed is simply to attend.  To attend is to listen to understand rather than to refute. Can we listen well enough that we can repeat what is said in a way that the other recognizes that we understood them? We may have to ask ourselves beforehand whether we are truly open to such dangerous listening, because it may open us to different ways of seeing things.

Fifth is that I believe there is a necessity at times to contend. We cannot start here, I think, because I think so many of the things we would contend for are things in which we are deeply invested. The process of awakening, lamenting, repenting, and listening, may help us discern where we are healthily and unhealthily invested, enabling us to advocate for the right reasons, as well as with the right demeanor. But there are things where we really do disagree. The question is whether we will ever seek to come to a meeting of the minds, or at least to identify what we can agree upon and work from that. So often, differing parties only contend in their books and talks directed toward those who agree with them.

Sixth, this may lead us to amend our ways toward each other and toward how we address each others concerns.

I dream of several changes that might flow out of this:

  • I hope this would lead our churches into a similar process of listening deeply to God, the Holy Scriptures, and one another, more intensely than to the political echo chambers that form many of our views.
  • I would hope public Christian leaders would sit down with those who differ greatly to practice these steps and model them for others. Imagine if Franklin Graham, from Samaritan’s Purse, and Jim Wallis from Sojourners met each other as believers and modeled this effort toward coming to a common mind and communion of heart.
  • I dream of the day when Christians, instead of aligning with one political party or another, would line up together to advocate for public policies that reflect the whole of the counsels of the Bible and challenge both parties to end the either-or approaches that characterize so much of our politics that set our people against each other.

As I wrote yesterday, I am convinced that if we do not work at composing and reconciling our differences in the American Church, we have little right or hope of expecting our American politicians to do it. I believe this is urgent for several reasons:

  • Christ is grieved and not glorified by how we have torn asunder his Body.
  • Our divisions sow seeds of doubt about the power of our gospel.
  • Our children are abandoning many of our churches because of our behavior around these divisions.
  • If we allow our divisions across race, gender, economics, and politics to continue, we will only aid and abet the inflaming of differences that could lead to a very scary future, and not one from powers outside our country.

Where am I beginning? I’ve decided that from now through Lent I am not going to post political posts or comments in social media in order to work on the six steps above in my own life. I’ve become increasingly aware of my own participation in the divisions about which I’ve written. I’m also going to look for at least a few fellow believers with views different from mine who would be open to practice this with me (anyone interested?).

Do me a favor, would you? If you think these posts on target, pass them along to church leaders you know, locally or nationally. I don’t want to see our generation repeat the error of church leaders in the pre-Civil War era. I hope instead they will say, “we must reconcile our differences and lead our country in doing the same.”

The Scandal of the Church in America: Part One

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Dunkard Church, a key landmark in the Battle of Antietam, and some of those who fell.

The scandal of the Church in America is that there is no apparent Church but only churches. I suppose you could argue that it has always been this way, although I do not think this lessens the scandal. The proliferation of denominations and independent churches reflects our strong independent streak and that we do not wish to be answerable to each other. I do think it is a contributing factor, but I think the scandal goes deeper.

The scandal is that our captivities to racial, sexual, economic and political identities and ideologies has left the Church in America a deeply divided body–divisions that reflect and in fact parallel American society. We are a far cry from the beautiful and radical ideal that the Apostle Paul proclaimed in a similarly divided society: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free,there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

I am deeply troubled for what this means both for the Church in America, and for America itself. I have lived here all my life, and through the cataclysmic year of 1968, but I have never been so troubled. What disturbs me most is not the newly installed administration, nor all the push-back by others who oppose it. It is that I see believing people lining up on one side or another of these fault lines, and many others, and often not the least troubled at the things they are attributing to their fellow believers–sometimes vicious things. Nor are we troubled that we are often advocating diametrically opposed positions and invoking the name of Jesus as we do so. Often we are engaged in a tribal warfare of words between conservative evangelicals, progressives, Catholics, mainline churches, and churches of people of color. Often, we aren’t listening to what anyone outside our own “tribe” is saying.

My pastor made an observation in the midst of preaching through the gospel of Matthew that I have been mulling over. He observed that when the religious establishment colluded with the political powers of their day, the result was the killing of Jesus. While I believe that Jesus is risen, I also believe that the visible manifestation of Jesus, called “the body of Christ” is being torn apart, perhaps as the scourges used to whip Jesus before crucifixion turned his back into bleeding ribbons of skin. Church, do we see that this is what we are doing to ourselves? Is it a wonder that so many churches are declining?

Perhaps it has always been this way in our national history. The churches of the North were deeply divided from the churches of the South before (and after) the Civil War. They preached the same Christ from the same Bible, but the North advocated abolition while ignoring its own racism and complicity in a national economic system that depended on slavery. Southern preachers defended “the peculiar institution” even as slaves and former slaves turned to the same Christ, formed churches, and yet were excluded from being consider full human beings or the opportunity to worship at the same altar.

We often talk about in our American history of the breakdown of political efforts to avert war, but has the Church in America ever reckoned that the blood of the 600,000 who died in the Civil War is also on our hands? Our dividedness then aided and abetted and inflamed the divides in our land and tore country apart even as it tore many denominations into northern and southern counterparts, some lasting to this day. One wonders what might have been if church leaders from North and South, who may have been educated in the same seminaries, had reached across the lines and said, “we must reconcile our differences and lead our country in doing the same.”

I am not an “America First” person, but rather a “kingdom of God” first person. The greatest commandment to love God and neighbor and the great commission to take the gospel to the nations has precedence in my life. Nevertheless I deeply love this country and the constitutional structures and freedoms that allows us to be many and yet one, e pluribus unum. What troubles me as a kingdom person who regularly affirms “the communion of the saints” is that this communion often does not extend beyond the church doors–sometimes not even within them! If we cannot model a unity that would consider it a scandal to speak with a divided voice as a church (and often bitterly against each other), then how dare we call on our political leaders to act with civility and to consider the common good when we will not do this even within the body of Christ!

I believe this is urgent, my brothers and sisters. We have had one civil war in our history that the Church made no effort to stop but in fact aided and abetted by our conflicting messages and inflammatory rhetoric. Another may take a different form where our political factions take up arms (Lord knows we have enough of them) in our cities if they cannot resolve their differences or be heard in the halls of Congress and the office of the President. We could fall into anarchy or tyranny. I like to say that children who play with matches inside the house often do not realize they can burn the house down until they do. Our incendiary and inflammatory speech may not stop there. It didn’t before the Civil War. Church, I’m asking, is it time to say “we must reconcile our differences and lead our country in doing the same?”

[Tomorrow, I explore what I think must be done.]

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — YMCA

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The YMCA on N. Champion in its early years. It still looked much like this when I joined. From Cliff Smith YMCA Postcard Collection, Springfield College Archives and Special Collections, CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Before “YMCA” was a hit song, it was a place where many generations of boys in Youngstown learned how to swim and participated in athletic and other activities, alongside volunteers and staff who cared about about their physical and character fitness (the initials stand for Young Men’s Christian Association). It also had low cost rooms that young men starting out could live in. The organization originally was founded in London, England and spread abroad. The idea was to promote a kind of “muscular Christianity” that promoted both physical and spiritual training.

By the time I became a member when I was in fourth grade, the spiritual part was pretty minimal. There was an induction ceremony that I remember that involved lighting candles, and an inspiring message, and we received our Y membership card, which we showed whenever we came into the building, the Central YMCA, located on North Champion Street off of E. Federal, where the Central Y has been located since 1915.

Growing up, I was what my parents called “husky” and my schoolmates called “fat.” Joining the Y was a way for me to get in better shape. I’m not sure it worked, but I gave it a try. I took swim lessons but never really graduated from the beginners. I’d go every Thursday after school and Saturday, but never quite got the hang of it. I still can’t swim. Maybe I’ll try learning in retirement some day!

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Pool, resident rooms, and cafeteria as it looked when I was a Y member. From Cliff Smith YMCA Postcard Collection, Springfield College Archives and Special Collections, CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

Saturdays were a fun day. You would come in the front entrance into the lobby where there were board games, puzzles, and even a chess board. In the morning, you went with other kids your age through a program that included swimming, exercise, some competitive games coached by the staff, running on the indoor track, and then off to the showers. Then it was time for lunch. They had this great cafeteria, and it was here that I discovered french fries with ketchup on them. After lunch, you could go see a movie, go to a craft room or play board games in the lobby until your parents picked you up.

Going to the Y meant getting my first gym bag and the stuff to go in it. The gym bag was blue vinyl with the Y logo on it. In it went shoes, gym shorts, t-shirt, swim suit, towel, deodorant, and this thing I had never worn before called an athletic supporter (alias jock strap). I had never thought of needing that kind of support before!

The first trip to the locker room was kind of intimidating–all these guys walking around naked taking showers at the same time. And you were supposed to do it too. I guess it was kind of a rite of passage into early adolescence. Thankfully, nothing weird ever happened and pretty soon, you didn’t think twice about it.

A Y membership when I was going up was $20 for the year. That made it accessible for most any family and the Y has always, and still does, offer financial assistance for children or families. The Central YMCA on North Champion is still there. It just finished the first major renovation in 46 years in January. In this video, taken in 2010, you can get a glimpse at what opportunities they offered at that time. It was amazing to see the old lower gym, still looking much as it had, with the indoor track above, as it did in the 1960’s. The pool looked pretty similar as well but everything else was different.

One other difference is that it serves women as well. There is still a YWCA in its historic building on Rayen Avenue. My wife took free swimming lessons there and we had friends in college who lived there because it was so inexpensive. I don’t know much else about it then or now except that it continues to serve women in the Youngstown area.

So much of what I remember in Youngstown is gone. It is a delight to know that these places of my youth are still standing, and still serving the people of Youngstown!

Reading Rituals

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One of the most famous Presidential readers

The pleasure of reading for so many of us is not simply the book itself but also in the rituals that surround our reading. I often read early in the day, before my wife awakens. Before I read, I pray, exercise, and shower. I brew a pot of coffee, unload the dishwasher and set out our breakfast dishes. By then the coffee is done. In the morning, I will sit in the rocker my wife usually sits in. I understand why she likes this chair so much. It is comfortable, and the fidget-er in me is satisfied because I can move.

After the first sip of coffee, which sits comfortably at my right side, I open the book I’m reading, pull the marker out and pick up where I’ve left off. Often, this is the time of the day when I do my most challenging reading. My mind is clear, the house is quiet, and I usually have an hour before I plunge into the day. Gradually, the light outside the front window brightens as the sun rises. I read for about an hour, maybe 30-35 pages and finish that first cup of coffee.

Some evenings or Sunday afternoons, I like to go down to the family room, also known as “the man cave.” Often I will bring a cup of decaf coffee or tea, a mystery or biography or history, and put on some good music, which could be anything from a Haydn quartet to the Modern Jazz Quartet. If I want to mix a nap in, I’ll stretch out on the sofa. If I really want to read attentively there is a nice cloth chair with a firm cushion and the best light. And if I really want to savor the music, I’ll choose the leather chair situated just right for the full stereo effect. I’ll kick my shoes off and hopefully get lost in a good story.

I’m one to read myself to sleep. Often I take a few minutes to read compline, a prayer to end the day, and read something light on my Kindle, which I can do without my glasses. This works well because I often will fall asleep after a few pages–the Kindle shuts itself off, my wife shuts off the light and I wake just enough to put the Kindle on the nightstand and kiss my wife goodnight.

Sure, I may read in some other times and places, but these are my favorites. None of this is terribly dramatic or exciting, but the rest of life has enough drama and excitement. Perhaps what these reading rituals have in common is the savoring of simple but good things, a mug of something in the hand, a comfortable chair or perhaps my bed, a moment of quiet, or perhaps of musical richness, and a good book to inform, to provide material for reflection or insight, or just a good means of stepping into another world to get a better perspective on life in this one.

What are your favorite reading rituals and what do they add to the reading experience?